Is America "Imperialistic" or "Hegemonic"

The United States has always been about something different than all of the rest. Its history was forged from resistance to imperialism and the ancien regime of Europe and the embracing of contradictory world of “we the people.” Since the war for independence, America has been on a trajectory that indeed does not stop as one writes these words. Two works attempt to understand the journey of America in the world, especially since World War II, Among Empires by Charles Maier and Irresistible Empire by Victoria de Grazia. Both concede that America is an empire of sorts, just not in the ways that are traditionally expected. For Maier, empire can be deduced from examples of the past, which explains the almost epic scope of the first half of his book. In the preface he states, “This book is thus about both being and having an empire, although with perhaps more attention to having than being.” For de Grazia, American ascendancy to empire is described in terms of economics and the idea of a “Market Empire,” for which America is driving across Europe. Both writers conclude that each had imperial ambitions in some ways, but traditional views of empire have to be discarded if one wants to deal with America truthfully.

charles-maier-among-empiresMaier, in Among Empires, almost goes out of his way to explain the underlining perceptions of “empire:” Empire can be described not just by a given historical trajectory, but also by a set of institutional hallmarks. Empire does not mean just the accumulation of lands abroad by conquest. And it does not mean just the imposition of authoritarian regimes on overseas territories. Empire is a form of political organization in which the social elements that rule in the dominant state – the “mother country” or the “metropole” – create a network of allied elites in regions abroad who accept subordination in international affairs in return for the security of their position in their own administrative unit (the “colony” or, in spatial terms, the “periphery”).

Here Maier lays the foundation of “empire” in the terms he will use throughout his book. Above, according to Maier, an empire is one that creates a system that will, by default, always benefit itself. Notions of blind accumulation of land (the “superstate” theory) and military bloodlust are uncalled for in today’s world, as those do not exist in the forms that one can read about in ancient history books. Maier also questions the perceptions that empire is built on coercion and bids to “control political loyalty and the territories it subjugates.” Empires also have emperors who claim a special entitlement to any sort of authority yet rely on succession of males to ensure power stays in only one family’s hands. “Why do empires exist at all?” Maier sees the problem as one of faulty historiography: “Motivation becomes a problematic issue only when historians – who can be critics, but are often rationalizers, of imperial projects – seek to justify motivation as selfless or altruistic of self-sacrificing.” After reading de Grazia, it becomes clear that her book is the “rationalizing” of the imperial America in the “altruistic” praise of consumerism as freedom from “backwardness.”

Given all these theories of empire, along with a detailed account of imperialism throughout the ages, Maier asks, “Given these models, does the United States have an empire? Second, can the United States possibly be constructed as being an empire?” For Maier, the three institutions that are critical for the makeup of an empire include the emperor, the military and frontiers. This is when Maier begins to deconstruct America as an empire based on the theorems mentioned above. Maier does not know whether to call America out for its “imperial influence” while letting the United States slide stating these facts, “do not themselves constitute empire.” In the second half of the book, Maier hits on what de Grazia hammers home: that the American “imperialism” (although not empire, according to Maier) is one of that, “The United States may thus apparently enjoy the prerogatives of a post-territorial ascendancy – one in which it seems to transcend fixed borders and can project power, exert influence, and enjoy prestige far beyond traditionally bounded jurisdictions.” Maier believes, like de Grazia, the U.S. moved from an empire of production to consumption, yet during this transition diluted the process and “the grounds for American hegemony became less evident.”

de-grazia-irresistible-empireDe Grazia closes Irresistible Empire by saying American hegemony can be traced to the ashes of history from 1900 to 1915. For de Grazia, post-World War II European relations with America were the focus of her work instead of a sweeping look at empires like Among Empires. De Grazia believes American power to be manifested in economic superiority thanks to the Marshall Plan and institutions like the IMF and World Bank that kept America on top through the rest of the twentieth century. De Grazia is interested, of course, in the idea of “soft power,” which is hegemonic and without the use of force, such as American culture, media or music. Maier warns, soft power or hard power – “it can never be truly soft.” Yet for de Grazia, who hints at Maier’s “openness of the moment,” the uniqueness of American power includes five features: the United States regarding other nations as having limited sovereignty, an exported civil society, power norms-making, a vaulted democratic ethos and its apparent peacefulness, which after the war was a welcome respite for the fraternal civil conflicts and genocidal rage of the moment. This contradicts Maier stating that, “Empires depend upon distance and, in modern times at least, rendering violence remote. But violence there will always be: it is part of the imperial minimum.” For de Grazia, the “consumer revolution” was one that was not violent in a direct sense, although wars were fought during the Cold War, which is the underlying tension at the backdrop of each book. To contrast Maier’s view of empire, de Grazia also saw America’s infiltration of Europe as an “empire by invitation,” an “empire by conscious” and an “empire of fun.”

Instead of trying to define empire, de Grazia studied carefully the multifaceted layers that led to this “infiltration.” These included the focusing in the United States and their wanting to deal with a “generic entity called Europe” instead of partitioned nation-states; the focus on Europe wishing to reconstruct a “commercial civilization,” and the focus on security and America “saving” Europe from those trying to topple “regimes that proved incapable of reform and were obtrusive and reactionary.” This reactionary nature is showcased in the view of women in empire, something Maier seemingly forgets to mention in Among Empires. De Grazia devotes a chapter to the “new” woman, the one whose role has shifted from the household to the store as she has been given the tools to dictate the economy of an entire country. This reactionary nature also produced a generation that would interpret “freedom” to mean “freedom to choose among lifestyles rather than promoting social equality or participatory democracy.”

Maier and de Grazia also work hand in hand through the different approaches to empire (“imperialism” to Maier and “hegemony” for de Grazia) as they each offer bricks that can used to construct a structure that one can use to identity power. Maier states in his opening chapter that empires are, in essence, “civilizing missions.” De Grazia would surely agree as she writes that Europe was trying to build community which is based around consumption with the “consumer-citizen” at the helm instead of any traditional elites. Maier, in the second half of his book, expands on de Grazia’s argument about the cinema’s role in European consumer evolution: “Its musical shows and television shows do not set political agendas, but they convey to hundreds of millions of people who are not U.S. citizens American mores and values,” although he concedes, like de Grazia, this was “not always, of course, to American advantage.” Maier supports de Grazia: “Europeans accepted American hegemony because it had provided a defense against a rival and far more oppressive domination,” which was the Soviet Union, at the time.

“Humans find it more satisfying to be determining history than to be subject to it,” according to Maier. This could explain the two differing paths Maier and de Grazia take to explain American hegemony since World War II. For Maier, he ignores key military might and settles for an “imperialistic” approach the United States in the world today. De Grazia does not ignore the blatant efforts of American “soft” power in Europe, as well as the rest of the world, but does nothing to challenge the traditional views of the material world we inherit today, swallowing like Maier alludes to earlier in this essay. “Empire, after all,” according to Maier, “is a project to dominate time as well as space. More than any other state form, it involves an effort to ensure institutional immorality: empire strives to be its own monument.” Both can agree that the United States, as an abstract concept, would be imperial in it’s insistence upon the revolutionary ideas that were put to paper in the late eighteenth-century. But both would, again, agree that the United States, as a physical object in this world, is imperial for its economic and military impact upon the world that will surely be immortal, as the lessons of its folly will surely be arrogantly ignored hundreds of years from now, as are the lessons of Rome today.

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~ by Daniel on December 13, 2007.

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